Over 100 congregations in Florida have sued a regional body of The United Methodist Church, believing they are not being given fair terms for leaving the second-largest denomination in the United States amid its schism over homosexuality.
A total of 106 congregations filed suit against the UMC Florida Annual Conference last Thursday in the Circuit Court for the Eighth Judicial Circuit in and for Bradford County, Civil Division.
A specific issue in the lawsuit is how the departing congregations are required to pay the conference a "sum of money" to retain control of their church properties.
The complaint alleges that this payment "is determined in the discretion of the aforementioned parties, and is always substantial and often prohibitive, yet nonnegotiable and unappealable."
The plaintiffs also contend that the UMC Book of Discipline, which is the denomination's central rule book, allows for them to "amicably disaffiliate," citing Section 2548.2.
Grace United Methodist Church of Lawtey, the lead plaintiff, believes it should not have to pay to secure its property because it purchased the property long before the UMC was founded in 1968.
"The Annual Conference has taken the position that it is entitled to keep the Grace UMC Property — which was owned and paid for by Grace UMC long before The UMC and the Annual Conference ever existed — unless Grace UMC pays a substantial payment of money as unilaterally determined by the Annual Conference Defendant," the suit states.
Grace UMC and the other churches are represented by the National Center for Life & Liberty, which also provided The Christian Post with a copy of the lawsuit.
NCLL CFO Jonathan Bailie told CP in an interview on Monday that he believes "the payments that the Florida Annual Conference is requiring them to pay is inequitable and onerous."
"The reason the lawsuit was filed was that the 106 churches believed that the Florida Annual Conference is not being equitable in creating a split that they're able to successfully minister in the communities for the Gospel," said Bailie.
"The churches are frustrated with the annual conference's violations of the Book of Discipline and refusal to honor the Traditional Plan as outlined in the 2019 General Conference."
Bailie was referring to the 2019 special session of the UMC General Conference, which passed a proposal known as the "Traditional Plan." The proposal reaffirmed the denomination's opposition to homosexuality and same-sex marriage while also attempting to streamline the disaffiliation process for congregations.
A Florida Conference spokesperson directed CP to an open letter that Bishop Ken Carter sent to the members of the regional body, in which he said he was "deeply grieved by" the lawsuit.
"We have been trying to engage those churches in that process but they have refused to follow that process choosing to file this lawsuit instead," wrote Carter.
"We ask that, despite their haste, these groups seeking to break away live up to the responsibilities established by the General Conference in 2019, and that they not cause pain, damage or disparage other United Methodist churches, other members in their churches or other pastors, or the Conference."
Carter cautioned against "an abrupt separation" like what he believed the churches wanted, writing that it "creates significant issues that could damage benefits and pensions for retired pastors and their spouses who devoted their lives to service."
"In all this, our overarching goal is to move through this process in a spirit where we can support, bless and love each other," he added.
"A tenet of our faith is that we embrace a Church built in loving relationships rather than uniformity in thought and action. As John Wesley is quoted, 'though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?'"
The UMC has been embroiled in a divisive debate over whether to change its official stance labeling homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching."
Although the UMC has consistently voted down efforts to change its stance, theologically liberal members and clergy have often refused to enforce the Book of Discipline position on the issue.
Frustrations over the endless debate and refusal of some UMC officials to enforce the rules have prompted many theologically conservative churches to seek dismissal from the denomination.
In May, the conservative Methodist group the Wesleyan Covenant Association announced that 107 churches were planning to leave the Florida Conference, representing around 20% of the member churches of the regional body.
The departing congregations intend to affiliate with the newly launched Global Methodist Church, which is meant to be a conservative alternative to the UMC.